Consuming a healthy, balanced, whole food-based diet is fundamental for helping to reduce gut inflammation, which in turn can help improve a leaky gut. Some leaky gut diet plans can be very prescriptive as to what you can and cannot eat, but there’s no one diet that works for everybody. So, let’s simplify the process of choosing a leaky gut diet that is right for you.
What Is Leaky Gut Syndrome, and How Does Diet Affect It?
Leaky gut, or increased gut permeability, is when the normally tight junctions between the cells of your intestinal lining loosen. This can cause partially or fully undigested food particles and unhealthy bacteria to move from your digestive tract into your bloodstream, creating a vicious cycle of inflammatory and immune system reactions that worsen the gut leakiness.
Evidence shows that diet strongly affects gut permeability [X].
Specifically, a poor diet can create dysbiosis (gut bacteria imbalances). Dysbiosis increases production of a protein called zonulin in the gut, which drives the loosening of tight cell junctions [X].
Gluten, from grains such as wheat, rye, and barley can also increase zonulin in some people, further driving intestinal permeability [X]. Zonulin levels tend to be closely linked to symptoms in people diagnosed with celiac disease [X].
As inflammation can make the gut leakier [X], it makes sense that an anti-inflammatory diet is the foundation to dealing with leaky gut symptoms such as bloating, joint pain, brain fog and autoimmune conditions including Crohn’s disease.
Start Simple With Anti-Inflammatory Foods
You don’t need to follow a specific leaky gut diet plan right away, as you may be able to make big progress just by cutting out processed foods and filling your plate with anti-inflammatory, whole foods instead.
In one study, people saw reductions in c-reactive protein — a measure of overall levels of inflammation in the body — within just a week after they started focusing on anti-inflammatory foods every day [X].
Anti-inflammatory foods to include in your diet:
- Deep green leafy vegetables
- Other brightly colored fruits and vegetables, especially berries
- Nuts and seeds
- Cultured dairy products suchs a natural yogurt and kefir (if dairy tolerant)
- Other (non dairy) fermented products, such as kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha
- High fiber whole grains (gluten free if that works better for you)
- Herbs and spices
- Healthy fats, such as coconut oil, olive oil, avocados and omega-3s
- Lean, ideally grass-fed or wild proteins, including beef, pork, poultry, fish, and eggs.
- Bone broth
Inflammatory foods to avoid:
- Processed and packaged foods high in refined carbohydrates,
- Deep-fried foods such as French fries
- Sugar (especially sugary sodas)
- Artificial sweeteners
- Processed meats like hot dogs
- Alcoholic drinks (in excess)
- Gluten and wheat-based products (for some people)
- Dairy (for some people)
Anti-Inflammatory Meal Ideas for a Leaky Gut
If you need some anti-inflammatory healthy meal ideas, below is a week’s worth of suggestions. Tip: Nuts and chopped fresh veggies and fruits make good snacks between meals.
|Monday||Two poached eggs with steamed spinach||Canned mackerel with a side of kale, carrot and sunflower seed salad.||Grilled salmon, baked sweet potato and cucumber salad|
|Tuesday||Glass of kefir, oatmeal, and berries||Tuna, kale, bell pepper, and avocado salad with homemade vinaigrette.||Beef chili (with or without beans), served with avocado slices, and a rocket salad|
|Wednesday||Smoothie made with blueberries, banana, whey powder, coconut milk||Baked sweet potato with black beans and sour cream /live yogurt||Grilled tuna steak served on bed of pak choi and scallions stir-fried with garlic and lime zest|
|Thursday||Avocado smashed on gluten-free toast||Carrot soup made with bone broth base, spiced with turmeric and ginger||Roasted chicken, with a side of green beans and baked sweet potato|
|Friday||Sesame rice cakes, almond butter, peach slices||Lettuce wraps (cold roast chicken, bell pepper strips, homemade Asian sesame dressing)||Roasted colorful vegetables and edamame topped with grilled shrimp|
|Saturday||Scrambled eggs, homemade breakfast potatoes, garlicky greens||Chilled poached salmon with watercress, avocado, mango flaked almond salad (homemade vinaigrette)||Grilled lamb steak with homemade ratatouille|
|Sunday||Gluten-free toast, cream cheese, strawberries||Mushroom omelet with a leafy green salad||Grilled fish, served with kale and roasted butternut squash|
Other Leaky Gut Diets
If you don’t see a significant enough reduction in your symptoms after upping your intake of anti-inflammatory whole foods for two to four weeks, you may need a more structured diet approach.
For many people, this means following a version of the Paleo diet or low FODMAP diet. Which one you choose as your leaky gut diet will depend on your most troubling symptoms.
- If your main problems are food sensitivities, joint pain, chronic fatigue, brain fog, skin issues, or autoimmune diseases, you’ll likely do best with a Paleo diet, as this removes inflammatory foods connected with these symptoms.
- If you are more prone to digestive issues, like gut pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a low FODMAP diet can help reduce these symptoms.
Let’s take a little closer look at each of these in relation to leaky gut syndrome.
This dampens down inflammation, creating a healthier environment for gut bacteria [X, X]. When your microbiome as a whole is in healthier shape, inflammation reduces further [X, X]. This should help a lot in reducing gut permeability and helping your leaky gut symptoms to improve.
Below is a simple overview of foods to eat and not eat on the Paleo. For a more detailed guide, check out the Whole 30 Paleo Diet Program.
Customizing a Paleo Diet
Not all of the foods removed on the Paleo are bad for everyone. For example, the strictest version of the Paleo diet is grain free, but you may find that you tolerate some grains just fine and need more carbs than the diet typically provides. It’s absolutely fine to experiment and see what works best for you.
A Low FODMAP Diet
The low FODMAP diet cuts out a group of fermentable carbohydrates that can feed bad gut bacteria and cause uncomfortable gut symptoms.
The low FODMAP diet has been shown to improve symptoms such as abdominal pain, gas, and bloating. It is particularly useful for people with IBS but can also help with leaky gut.
Below is a summary of common low FODMAP foods and high FODMAP foods (you can also find a list of handy FODMAP snacks here).
Customizing a Low FODMAP Diet
The low FODMAP diet is highly customizable based on your own experience with different foods. For example, many people can’t tolerate legumes, but you may find certain beans are just fine. Similarly, the lactose in dairy isn’t a problem for some people but for others, it is a critical FODMAP to avoid long term. As with Paleo, you need to find what works for you.
A Word of Warning
In the clinic, I often notice patients not getting relief from their leaky gut and digestive health symptoms eat pre-packaged “health” foods labelled “Paleo” or gluten-free.” While they assume these are healthy, some of these products may still aggravate bloating due to highly refined ingredients such as processed starch. The best strategy is to eat real, whole foods, and to avoid pre-packaged, processed foods altogether.
Leaky Gut Diets for Food Sensitivities
Even though the Paleo and low FODMAP diets work for many cases of leaky gut, unidentified food sensitivities could still keep your small intestine too permeable and play havoc with symptoms.
An elimination diet removes a wider variety of potential irritants, which can help you identify food intolerances.
For this purpose, you could consider trying an autoimmune protocol diet, or an elemental diet:
The Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) Diet
This more restrictive version of the Paleo diet eliminates additional foods including eggs and nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplants). These additional food groups have been shown to trigger inflammation and immune system reactions for some particularly sensitive individuals.
By damping down inflammation and calming the immune system, the AIP diet has been proven to be useful in various inflammatory and autoimmune conditions, including IBD and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis [X, X, X].
The Elemental Diet
This is another diet to consider for leaky gut symptoms that persist (or at any stage for a very reactive gut). It consists of a powdered meal replacement formula that is pre-digested into individual elements. The formula is hypoallergenic, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory.
A good way to use an elemental is as a 2-4 day short-term meal reset for your gut. However, it can also be used as long-term maintenance in place of 1-2 daily meals or exclusively for 1-3 weeks to target moderate to severe symptoms.
Addressing Bad Bacteria
Bacterial overgrowths, SIBO, dysbiosis, and gut infections can make a leaky gut hard to heal no matter how much attention you pay to your diet. This is where probiotic supplements come in. Research shows that the right probiotics can:
- Reduce blood serum levels of zonulin, an indicator of leaky gut [X].
- Restore intestinal barrier function and reduce intestinal permeability in IBS patients, overweight and obese adults, and colon cancer patients [X, X, X X, X, X].
The best results can be obtained by including a diversity of high-quality probiotic strains to help nourish your gut microbiome back to health. For example, two systematic reviews and meta-analyses indicate that multi-strain probiotics were more effective than single-strain probiotics for treating IBS [X].
For best results, take one probiotic from each of these categories:
- Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria blends, including species of probiotics such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium infantis
- Saccharomyces boulardii (a beneficial yeast)
- Soil-based probiotics, usually Bacillus species
Sometimes, targeted herbal antimicrobial agents can help with lingering gut infections.
A further supplement that may help your progress and hasten the healing of your gut lining is the amino acid L-glutamine.
Getting Better and Moving On
As your intestinal wall heals and your gastrointestinal health improves, you may be able to broaden your diet. You’ll need to listen to your body and adapt your diet accordingly.
You won’t always have to deprive yourself of every “treat” food. But when you realize how much better you feel when eating healthy wholesome food most of the time, you might not want to go back to your old habits.
For more in-depth help with digestive system-related health issues, you can follow my eight-step protocol back to wellness as outlined in “Healthy Gut, Healthy You.” You can also schedule an in person or virtual one-to-one consultation at our functional medicine center.